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This article was first published 8 years ago  » Movies » 'If at all there is a God, for me it is Neerja'

'If at all there is a God, for me it is Neerja'

By Dr Kishore Murthy
Last updated on: February 19, 2016 18:10 IST
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'I was in the sixth row of the economy class and vividly remember how they shot her at point blank range in front of me.'
'I was shocked to see her dying.'
'Whenever I think of that moment, I wonder: Is this humanity? What has a 23 year old done to deserve this? She was only trying to help people.'

Neerja Bhanot

Dr Kishore Murthy was just 31 years old when he boarded a Pan Am plane to the United States on September 5, 1986.

Little did he know that the ill-fated flight would be hijacked by Libyan terrorists at the Karachi International Airport.

Little did he know that a 23-year-old air hostess would transform into a saviour for the plane's passengers.

Little did he know that she would be killed in cold blood in front of his eyes.

Murthy recalls that chilling day, and pays homage to the brave young woman, Neerja Bhanot (above), who saved over 300 lives.

I was on my way to the US to attend an international conference. We were to take a Pan Am Mumbai-Frankfurt-New York flight. It came as a surprise to us at Bombay airport when we were told the flight would first land at the Karachi International Airport and then proceed to Frankfurt.

Prior to our departure, we had heard that all airports in Pakistan and India were on high alert as the Americans had bombed (Libyan ruler Colonel Muammar) Gaddafi's palace (in retaliation for the Libyan involvement in the bombing of a Pan Am flight, which crashed at Lockerbie, Soctland)

When we landed in Karachi, the aircraft was hijacked by Libyan terrorists. Neerja was well trained in anti-hijack measures. She alerted the pilots and they escaped through the cockpit window.

There were approximately 400 passengers in the plane at the time.

In between talking to the passengers and urging them to keep calm, Neerja was communicating with the terrorists in broken Arabic. She was also translating their demands into English for the control tower.

She was very brave and a true global citizen. The hijackers were looking for American passengers, so she hid their passports. Despite this, one Indian American -- I don't recall his name -- got up and said he was American.

Sonam Kapoor in and as Neerja.

IMAGE: Sonam Kapoor in and as Neerja.

He thought the terrorists were gunning for Indians because a majority of the passengers were Indians. He didn't realise they were looking for Americans.

The terrorists shot him right there and threw his body out of the plane.

Quite a few people died in front of me. 25, 30 passengers were killed and a large number were injured.

One person opened the door that led to the wing of the plane. I remember Neerja screaming to that passenger that he should use another escape route where there was an emergency chute. But he jumped from the wing to the ground and was, as a result, paralysed.

He was an Indian-American neurosurgeon. It is hard for a neurosurgeon who helps heal other peoples to be in bed like that. It was very sad.

Generally, when a plane lands anywhere, a generator is attached to it. This generator provides electricity to the plane when it is parked; the in-built battery is used when it lands in the sea, desert or mountain area.

On that particular day, the generator was not connected. After 18 hours, the lights started dimming in the aircraft.

The terrorists began screaming in Arabic. They made 300 passengers move to the front of the economy cabin. Four terrorists took position in four corners of the cabin and started shooting and throwing grenades.

They were probably were angry with Neerja because of the way she was thinking on her feet, marshalling the limited resources available to her and saving so many passengers.

I was in the sixth row of the economy class and vividly remember how they shot her at point blank range in front of me.

I was shocked to see her dying. One cannot express those feelings in words. Whenever I think of that moment, I wonder: Is this humanity?;

What has a 23 year old done to deserve this? She was only trying to help people.

The hijack continued for 20 hours. Towards the end, there was no food or water. Once the battery died, we were in total darkness. No one knew what was happening.

You know, Neerja was the first person who could have run away. She was trained and she knew what was happening. She was at the entrance to the aircraft when the terrorists boarded. She could have escaped like the pilots did and left the aircraft to younger colleagues. She didn't do it.

That shows her guts and her inner strength. She was truly a great leader.

This memory is so vivid that, even now, after 30 odd years I can't forget her lovely face. She was an angel. If at all there is a God, for me it is her.

We talk of God but no one has seen Him. Today, I am today a doctor because of her. I survived because of her. Like me, there are 300 odd passengers who survived because of her.

I feel this film on Neerja should have been made a long ago. This is the bravery we should be talking about. My wife is a medical journalist and we spoke to several Kannada film producers and directors about this subject. Unfortunately, nobody took up the challenge.

Neerja is a braveheart, like the Kargil and Siachen bravehearts. A young lady commanding a plane, negotiating with terrorists, keeping the passengers calm and maintaining her cool is the kind of bravery you rarely see in life.

We came to know the terrorists were caught at Karachi airport and jailed in Pakistan for many years. After they escaped, they were caught by American forces in Bangkok and are still in jail.

Neerja saved Indian and American lives that unfortunate day. I request the people of India to watch this film.

Neerja Bhanot is the youngest Indian to be awarded the Ashok Chakra, India's highest honour for courage in peace time.

Dr Kishore Murthy spoke to Syed Firdaus Ashraf/

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Dr Kishore Murthy